For the second straight year, the playoffs have made one thing readily apparent: we need more elite talent.
We've got a great coach, we've got one All-Star, and we've got a lot of very good rotation players. These qualities, combined with a good system, high levels of effort and hustle, and a we-not-me team mentality is worth quite a few wins in the regular season. With no changes and relative health, I think this team could get to 50 wins or more next year.
But the playoffs are another matter. Good isn't good enough. You need greatness to hang banners. The slogan "We're ONE superstar" is cute and catchy, but it doesn't bring us an closer to sitting at the table with the big boys.
None of this is to overreact to a couple of games. We knew, deep down, heading into this series that there was a ceiling on what this particular team could accomplish. There is a range of possible outcomes in this postseason, and the high end of that range was probably the second round (unless the Cavs somehow melted down in epic fashion). The low end is getting swept out of the playoffs for the second straight year, and we are now two losses away from that becoming reality.
I still have hope that this team can win a couple of games and perhaps make this a series again. I'm not ruling out the chance that they could come all the way back and win it. But the odds seem stacked against that outcome, in particular due to the injury problems that have cropped up all of a sudden.
In theory this team should have been the best equipped to handle an injury or two since it is one of the deeper teams in the playoffs. Instead, it seems like the rotation is a fragile ecosystem where each piece depends upon and strengthens the pieces around it. Upset the balance by removing a couple of components, and the whole thing falls apart - at least for large portions of the first half.
Every team has bad nights, and having a couple of superstars isn't going to eradicate that completely. Look no further than the OKC Thunder losing to the badly over-matched Dallas Mavs the other night. Durant was off, the role players didn't step up, and Raymond Felton (of all people) got hot at just the right time. It happens. But the difference is that was a blip. Unless things get really weird, we'll see Durant and Westbrook advance to the next round and play with the other contenders.
If the Celtics want to play at that table, they need the stars that consistently get you there. Thomas is a nice start, but he needs help. Having a top-5 pick is going to help as well. That pick will either turn into one of the top guys in the draft or be traded for a high end player.
The price tag is going to be high for a star, make no mistake. It could cost us multiple picks and a player or two off of a roster to which we've gotten very attached. I don't want to trade Jae Crowder because he's so much a part of the identity of this team. But if the identity of this team is "great regular season team that can't advance in the playoffs" then I'm ok trading that in for a new identity.
Brad Stevens has done so much with this roster. He's introduced pace-and-space, borrowing from the Spurs' and Warriors' systems. There are elements of the Grizzlies "grit-n-grind" mentality as well. He's playing to his players' strengths and pushing them to improve every day in his process oriented philosophy. Just imagine what he could do with even better players!
Dreams of adding Kevin Durant have always been far-fetched, and perhaps losing in the first round will hurt those slim chances. But trading for a guy like Jimmy Butler could turn things in a positive direction. A good lottery result and a few opportunistic trades could change the landscape quickly. Free agency is going to be bonkers, and the best, most prepared GMs are going to need to take advantage of market inefficiencies. But there's time for all that soon enough (or rather sooner than we'd want).
The Celtics absolutely could go back to Boston and pick up a win and follow that up with another one. They could ride that momentum all the way back to winning the series and advancing to the 2nd round. That would be great, and I'd love to witness it. However, what Danny Ainge has been saying all along would still be true. This team needs more top level talent to contend for championships.